By Peter Thomas Ricci
I’ll begin this review of the sensational “Lindiwe” with an observation that is, I think, hardly a controversial one – Steppenwolf is at its best when producing original content. While the company’s revivals and stagings are always worth a look, it is the work that ferments among Steppenwolf’s company members – “August: Osage County,” “Downstate,” “The Brothers/Sisters Plays” – that is the richest and most profound by a large margin, and that tradition of excellence has continued with ensemble member Eric Simonson’s “Lindiwe.”
A remarkable fusion of music and drama, “Lindiwe” is many things: a transcontinental, trans-racial love story; a devotional to the beauties of musical expression; a profound commentary on the political callousness of nations and borders; and lastly, a spiritual fairy tale. Told in a nonlinear fashion, Simonson’s narrative tracks the musical triumphs and personal tribulations of Lindiwe, a South African singer who, while touring the United States with the legendary vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo, falls in love with Adam, a Chicago-based blues drummer.
Although things are initially glorious between the two musicians – they complement one another’s artistic processes, they make love, they revel in each other’s cultures – friction inevitably develops, and is helped along by the transcontinental nature of their relationship. While visa problems relegate Lindiwe to her native South Africa, Adam is hesitant to leave his burgeoning producing career and move to another country in another continent. And when their relationship is at its most fraught point, a mysterious figure known only as Keeper steps in and transports the dueling musicians into an afterlife of sorts, one populated with past acquaintances and dire consequences.
Simonson’s writing is sharp and often hilarious, but it is undoubtedly the sensational music that propels the action – aided in no small part by the physical presence of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The vocal group (which came to worldwide prominence after being prominently featured on Paul Simon’s epochal album “Graceland”) acts as a Greek chorus to the material, adding original music and choreography that brilliantly complements the actions and emotions of the characters.
With perfect vocal harmonies and remarkable body percussion, Mambazo’s presence is alone reason to see the production – and yet, thanks to a star-making performance from Nondumiso Tembe as Lindiwe, there is so much more. A South African actress, singer, and dancer, Tembe has some credits to her name (for instance, she had a four-episode arc in HBO’s “True Blood”), but this is her first starring role of such prominence, and to say that she seizes the day would be an understatement. On the stage for nearly the entirety of the play’s two-hour runtime, Tembe does it all, from singing a cappella, to fronting the Mambazo ensemble through voice and dance, to acting with remarkable detail and sensitivity, to closing out the show with a commanding performance of the blues classic “Sweet Home Chicago.” And it’s worth stressing the purity and beauty of Tembe’s voice, which features no strain, no weakness, no flaws. Basically, it requires about 10 minutes to see that Tembe is a star, and you should leap at the opportunity to see her perform in such a role in such a space.
Playing through Jan. 5 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 Halsted St
Tickets are available at 312-335-1650, or by visiting steppenwolf.org.